In the last decade, improv comedy has produced some big names. From Tiny Fey to Amy Poehler, to Steve Carrell and Seth Rogen—improv comedy stars broke out beyond sketch comedy shows, such as SNL and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and into primetime television and the movie theaters.
This has led to increased interest in improv comedy classes for hobbyists and even business professionals—Second City in Chicago even offers specific improv training workshops for companies looking to do professional development in communication and leadership.
Julie Brister has been teaching at Upright Citizens Brigade, one of the country’s most well-known improv comedy groups, for over a decade. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Brister about why learning improv is so hard and how it teaches people important skills that they can use in their day-to-day lives. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bourree Lam: How long have you been teaching improv?
Julie Brister: I started taking classes at UCB in New York in 1997. I was very dogged in my pursuit. I took classes for three years regularly. Then in 2001, they asked me to start teaching for their program. I immediately said yes, I was terrified, but I said yes. I'd coached groups before, but I'd never taught. It just seemed like a huge responsibility. I had a lot of respect for my teachers and I thought, "Can I do this?" And I did.
Lam: You've been teaching for 15 years now, how have your teaching methods and approach evolved?
Brister: Well I'm not afraid, the students are more afraid than I am. For me, it's social. It's exciting when you have a new class, because you're meeting new people. I have found things that have helped me. When I first started teaching there was no curriculum, and it was all on me. In 2006, we started teaching with a curriculum, and that made everything just incredibly simple and a lot easier to manage.
Lam: Is improv a lot more popular now than when you started teaching?
Brister: It is so much more popular now; it is so much more mainstream. UCB has grown so much: Even people who don't live in New York and L.A., some kid in Missouri, knows about UCB and that's extraordinary to me. And that has really happened in the past five years. I feel like in the past five years, improv has become a part of everybody's language. It's a joke now, like "oh, you're going to go to your improv class?" It's a mainstream joke now!
Lam: As somebody who’s in the improv comedy scene, can you tell me about that recent transition of improv going from niche to mainstream?
Brister: Ultimately I think it's all good, because I think improv helps people become better humans. It makes people listen better. Improv rules are life rules. And so, if a lot more people are taking improv, a lot more people are being thoughtful in their daily life about how they interact with each other. The way that it might be a little weird is that you have a lot more people who would never take improv otherwise. Sometimes that's a good thing, and sometimes that's not a good thing. Sometimes you get people who are never going to get it, and that can be harder to teach.
Lam: How does improv make people better?
Brister: In improv, you're supposed to accept and embrace another person's idea. Not necessarily their point of view, but their idea—you're supposed to say “yes” to that. If we did that more in life, if we did that at our jobs—jobs that are not teaching improv—that makes everybody work better. Everybody works together more harmoniously. Embracing another person's idea, and letting go of your own thing, for the good of the group. That's very much an improv philosophy that translates into life.
Listening is a big one, because listening is the number one thing. We could say that saying “yes” is the foundational thing, but really it's listening and hearing what the other person is saying. Then building off of that rather than waiting for someone to stop talking so you can say your thing. That's the hardest thing to learn as an improviser—it's to listen. And I think that's one of the hardest things to do as a person. Listen, and use what's being said rather than "oh are you done yet?" let me say what I'm going to say.
Lam: And how do you teach that?
Brister: There are exercises that we do that relate to it. Sometimes, when we do scenes it's a lot of stopping and starting—giving an improviser an adjustment—and then moving on. Eventually, people kind of get it. When you're waiting for somebody to stop talking, what you're really doing is saying that you want to control the situation. Control is not a good thing in improv at all, it's not about trying to control what's going on. So eventually you get people to let go, and to really listen and be in the moment. But that can take some time and some work. Our level one sessions are eight weeks, and it takes longer than eight weeks. It's hard to learn.
Lam: Why do you think it's so hard for people to learn to listen?
Brister: We always want our little scrap of control. There are other ways people show that: For example, when people ask a lot questions sometimes they're looking for control. I have an ear for that. What they're really saying is: "What's my angle? How can I get my foot in here and control the situation?" Giving in and saying “yes” is so hard, but ultimately it's the most rewarding thing that you can do. It's scary.
Lam: Is there a particularly memorable student in your years of teaching?
Brister: There was a guy, when he came to me he was already really great with characters and voices. At UCB, the whole philosophy is less is more. We want you to be able to be yourself on stage, and not do a bunch of crazy characters. Although there's room for that too, but you have to be comfortable being yourself. And making this guy find his way to be comfortable being himself was a real challenge. But ultimately, he's really great and he's still improvising. That's happened many times.
You're not necessarily getting all actors. Out here in LA, you get more actors and writers. In New York, you have more of a mix: actors, writers, and then an attorney. When you get that attorney, what's fun is when you get somebody who doesn't want to perform, but they're really good at it. You'll get a guy who's an attorney that wants to do better in front of his peers, to speak in court better, and that guy in class turns out to be a really good straight man. That is just a revelation to see that: You don't have to be an actor, this is something that translates to normal humans. And that has happened quite a bit, both here and in New York. People who aren't necessarily performers, or want to be performers, or even have a comedy career—but they've got a really good ear for what's funny.
Lam: What do you find rewarding about teaching improv?
Brister: I get a laugh. I have a job that I love, I can't imagine not having this job. I am the luckiest person in the world that I get to teach adults how to play make-believe. I don't look forward to every class, but I look forward to teaching and watching people progress. I'm part of a theatre and community that I love, so I feel really lucky that my job and my life are intertwined in a way that I'm really happy about.
I had great teachers, Amy Poehler was one of my teachers. She is just a natural, fantastic teacher. If I've based my experience as a teacher on anybody, it would be the way that she taught. Not all the teachers at UCB are like this, but Amy was that perfect blend of supportiveness and firmness. So you had to take it seriously. Everybody took it seriously because they wanted to please her and make her laugh. And she would give you that, if you deserved it. She understands that one of the secrets of happiness is making people feel good. And if I can take some small part in that, and bring that into my class, then I've done my job.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a speechwriter, a children’s songwriter, and an actress.